How IEC has leveraged tech ahead of elections

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 04 Mar 2019
South Africans will head to the polls on 8 May for the sixth administration since the dawn of democracy 25 years ago.
South Africans will head to the polls on 8 May for the sixth administration since the dawn of democracy 25 years ago.

In the past, political parties were required to submit candidate lists manually; however, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has now made it possible for parties to complete this task online.

This is according to Libisi Maphanga, CIO of the IEC, who reveals the online candidate nomination system is the organisation's biggest ICT change in the run-up to this year's general elections.

South Africans will take to the polls on 8 May to elect the leadership of the sixth administration. As per the requirements of section 27 of the Electoral Act, Act 73 of 1998, the parties intending to participate in these elections are required to submit lists of candidates.

Maphanga says the IEC will continue to accept manual submissions, but the new system presents a number of benefits to the parties. "They will be able to capture their lists centrally, they can see what progress they are making and determine if their candidates are compliant or not. They can make replacements and sort the lists as they wish. Only once the process is completed and they are happy with everything will we receive the submissions on our side."

In addition, the online candidate nomination system provides a payment gateway to allow for deposits in respect to the national and provincial assembly elections.

The CIO notes: "Allowing online payment means they don't have to carry cash or a cheque. They can simply go onto the system or do an EFT, and the payment will be updated immediately and directly on our system. The limitation on the type of payment that we used to have in the past was lifted in 2014, and since then we have been fairly open except that you can't bring cash to us."

Libisi Maphanga serves as the Independent Electoral Commission's CIO.
Libisi Maphanga serves as the Independent Electoral Commission's CIO.

Refined systems

While the IEC has added an online layer for candidate nominations, much of the IEC's ICT infrastructure is still the same, "largely refining existing functionality and processes in line with changes in the legislation", Maphanga reveals.

For example, the CIO goes on to say, the IEC has similar APIs as those used in the last two elections. "Through our APIs, they [media and other stakeholders] will be able to access the data directly from our systems and present them as they see fit on their online platforms; that is, Web sites, apps, mobile phones, etc."

According to Maphanga, there have been a lot of improvements that will not be visible to most people, but the focus has been on performance-tuning and building security features in the background.

"The results will be available in real-time online through the mobile apps...and we allow use of our SMS facility to check registration and voting stations. This is the standard stuff that we have been providing over the years," he states. "Using barcode scanners, we will scan the IDs like we have done in the past for voter participation. By and large, we are not discarding any of our old processes, and on the technology front we are just enhancing those."

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck believes the most basic ways the IEC can leverage technology for now are through up-to-date computer systems for registration, data analysis for allocation of resources, and vote counting and instant data analysis of the voting.

Goldstuck explains: "Slightly more advanced uses at present would be using social media for voter education and keeping voters updated on polling station locations and wait times. The same should be done via an interactive Web site and an app.

"The IEC has gone on record with its intentions to harness advances in appropriate technology, so we can expect significant shifts over the next two general elections."

Sabelo Dlamini, senior research and consulting manager at IDC, points out the IEC has improved in recent years in the use of technology, but there is still room for improvement.

"As the demography of the voting population becomes younger, it is imperative to reduce time taken to cast a vote as low as possible to drive increased turnout. A strategic approach to achieving limited time spent during the voting process is swift voter verification at voting stations.

"Furthermore, after voting is completed, technology through optical scanning machines can also be leveraged as an extra control layer to mitigate human errors in vote calculations."

Dlamini recognises three areas where the IEC can use technology to create a digital experience for the electorate.

"Firstly, smart technology can be deployed during the pre-election phase for voter registration to expedite and ensure accurate electorate data; eg, biometric information, etc.

"Secondly, during elections, advanced IT systems can be deployed to ease voter verification; therefore, significantly reducing time spent to vote. Again, real-time electronic systems synchronised to a central database must be deployed.

"Lastly, the use of data analytics and intelligent systems can be leveraged to enhance post-election audits and verifications."

Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.
Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx.

Keeping the lights on

As power utility Eskom has escalated rolling blackouts in the past two months, the impact of being in the dark has been felt by businesses and households across the country.

Commenting on the likelihood of load-shedding during the elections, Maphanga says the IEC has generators and UPS battery backup systems for its data centre, national office and the provincial results centres.

"Our national office has a UPS and generator. If power goes, the UPS will carry the load for a very short time and then the generator will kick in, generally within three seconds.

"This infrastructure has been in operation since 2010; even in the old building we had installed generators. On average, our data centre will never go down because of electrical power failure. We have replicated that architecture to the provincial result centres, including the national result centres.

"At the local level, it varies from office to office. Some of the local offices are hosted in buildings that have similar infrastructure but the majority do not. In that case, the plan, if it comes to push, is that on the evening or morning when they are capturing and the electricity goes out - if it cannot be fixed in a short time - they can move and capture from the nearest office or move to the provincial office and capture from there."

Maphanga points out the cost of providing generators and UPSes for every office has been fairly high and the IEC has not managed to afford it over the years, but the core data centre at national office and most of the provincial offices are covered.

The IDC's Dlamini says data centre and connectivity infrastructure should be prioritised. "The requirement for seamless and swift integration of data from various registration and voting stations cannot be over-emphasised. Therefore, limited latency on connectivity networks should be prioritised, along with secured and robust storage infrastructure."

Remaining hopeful

Maphanga says they hope and pray nobody would be interested in hacking the IEC. However, in the event such an incident happens, there is further hope the organisation's defence mechanisms will be able to block them.

Data or systems security are a concern for everyone in the IT industry at the moment, he notes. "It's not a worry because we say there is something specifically happening against us, or because there are some gaps that we are aware of, but largely because there is a lot activity at that level globally.

"You never know when you will be a target, who is going to hit you or for what purpose or intent. We try to make sure we have the necessary tools and systems to protect our data. That is where the focus is.

"We will be able to pick up if there is some attempt at hacking us. Given the transparency of our processes, it is unlikely somebody can hack us and change the results without anybody noticing.

"The process is transparent from the beginning, throughout the voting, the counting, and the dissemination of the results. If I capture the party votes for your voting stations incorrectly it will be exposed because everyone can see all those minute details."

Future of voting

Even though it might be early days for SA, Goldstuck believes the IEC should begin preparing for electronic voting, as all voting will be electronic in future.

"Imagine knowing the voter trends as they happen, and the outcome of the elections as the last vote is cast. That is where it is possible to be with current technology.

"Internationally, we are seeing the beginnings of online voting, but it is still in its infancy, as identification, verification and security remain significant barriers. Smartphones with strong biometric identification built in are a solution, but not an appropriate one, as only a small proportion of voters would have those. A generation from now it could be feasible," he states.

Maphanga agrees the possibility of online voting in future cannot be ruled out, but warns the process must not deny the electorate the freedom of choice.

"I will never say is making things possible and sometime in the future it will be possible to go online and vote but we'll need to keep the whole nation together with us."

According to him, such a decision lies squarely in the hands of the political parties. "The technology is there and has a lot of security to protect the process but there needs to be buy-in from ordinary citizens, parties and party leaders.

"There are issues such as transparency, which may be a bit challenging in regards to online voting. A person voting from anywhere, everywhere or from uncontrolled and unsupervised places poses a challenge.

"Electronic voting works well if you can audit it directly and you can say X voted here, this is what the vote is and it can be traced in the system until where it is counted. If somebody knows who X voted for then that means X does not have the freedom of choice."

Dlamini concludes the dynamics of e-voting in every country is different; therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to modelling other international systems.

"The local dynamics of each country forms an integral part of policies to drive the transition from ballot papers to e-voting. Although SA is one of the most matured technology markets in Africa, psychological readiness and maturing of the electorate need to be positioned to accept the concept of e-voting.

"Furthermore, localised regulatory frames driven by political will from government, will be key to drive an e-voting initiative."